Federal Writers' Project - Life Histories/2017/Fall/Section 26/Hester Frye

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Hester Frye lived as an African-American maid in Tishabee, Alabama.

Hester Frye
BornTishabee, Alabama, USA
Other namesHessie


Hester Frye was born in Tishabee, Alabama, on an unknown date. Her mother was Lucy Frye, a descendant of the Gullah group of African-Americans. Prior to the Civil War, her mother relocated from Charleston, South Carolina to Alabama with her new white employers, Bob and Calline Johnson. She did not know her father. She did not have any siblings or relatives known to her, as she lived with her mother until her mother’s death. Frye lived her entire life in Old Johnson Place, situated near the Tombigbee River. Frye never received a formal education. After the death of the Johnson family, she served as a maid to a white man, Charlie. Her job consisted of cleaning, cooking, and ironing clothes. She never had to work in the field or plantation. She never married. She has one daughter named Rose. The father of the daughter is unknown.[1]

Frye’s lack of a formal education and job as a domestic servant accounted for her inexperience with religion. Her first employer, Bob, did not provide his black servants with the opportunity to go to school or church, out of the fear of an uprising that could occur from this knowledge. Her next employer, Charlie, believed that religion was foolish, so he did not provide her with the opportunity to go to the local church. This inaction by her employer left Frye with no substantial belief about her purpose in life. She never was able to read the Bible, sing religious songs, or go to confession, but still thought about Heaven as a place that she could go to.[2]

At the time of this interview, she did not know her age, but felt as though she was quite older and nearing her death because of an unnamed ailment. The remainder of her life and her death date are unknown.[3]

Social Issues[edit]

The Background and Enslavement of the Gullah People[edit]

In the 1700s, the enslavement of the now-called Gullah people began. Due to South Carolina and Georgia’s beneficial climate to grow rice and other crops, plantation owners purchased slaves in order to keep up with the demand of harvest.[4] The native people worked on rice plantations in a location known as the Windward Coast in West Africa. Upon arrival to America, these people created the identity of Gullah. The enslavement of the Gullah people presented a legacy that would last in South Carolina for generations to come. After the Civil War, many slaves were freed to own land. They had the ability to establish economic security on their own. The more popular location of Gullah culture is Hilton Head, in which communities of Gullah people grew.[5]

The Gullah people brought an entire culture with them, including the art of basketmaking, religious movements, folktales, and language dialects. Their Gullah language is described as a creole langauge based on English, spoken by a mix of different people who were put together and forced to communicate. The language borrows some vocabulary from specific African languages and varies the enunciation of English terms and sentences.[6] As this culture continues to exist today in South Carolina and Georgia, Gullah people are able to learn about their heritage through texts that are passed down. They also incorporated West African dances and spiritual practices that would become a key part of Gullah identity.[7]

Domestic Servitude of African-American Women[edit]
A wife of a grocer in the kitchen with her maid.[8]

Due to the U.S. Constitution’s 13th Amendment to end plantation slavery, African-American women increasingly became paid domestic workers. However, the continued thought of black people as servants supported racist ideology in the South. The term of “servant” describes a domestic helper that has no power and is responsible to simply perform duty.[9] From being a slave, women’s status lowered to domestic servitude, which led these women being put into a “caste system” of black people even after the Civil War.[10] This caste system is built upon how black people still have to be dependent on their employers before they can gain any freedom. For example, the continued enslavement of black women in homes were out of the need to serve the white woman, thus placing black women at a lower social and economic standing.[11]

In 1920, the total number of African-Americans that were ages 10 and above had made up about 22 percent of the total number of domestic workers employed.[12] These women and young girls were required to complete tasks given to them by the white owners, such as cooking, cleaning, and taking care of other children.[13] Because African-American women were now housemaids rather than plantation slaves, there was an assumption that African-American women were content with their jobs. However, this was not the case and only portrays the reality of race inequality and the long-standing effects of slavery in the South. [14]

Illiteracy Trends for African-Americans in the South[edit]

Because it was illegal for slaves to learn how to read and write, many slaves who reached adulthood illiterate were unable to learn these skills later in life.[15] After the abolitionist period, there is an increase in the illiteracy rates for African-Americans. In 1920, roughly 25% of African-Americans were counted on the census as illiterate, featuring 64% of this population as those 55-64 years old. Meanwhile, only 5.7% of white individuals in the South were illiterate.[16] When this older generation of African-Americans was in its prime educational stage, the individuals had not yet reached the Reconstruction Era of Alabama.[17] Prior to this rehabilitation, Alabama society allowed segregation, in which racial separation disabled many slaves to receive a formal education. In the 1900s, these illiterate adults had less of a chance to receive a job of higher income, leaving the only options as farming or domestic servitude.[18]

Another reason for such an increase in the illiteracy rates of African-Americans was the apportionment of funds in the school system. Throughout analysis, many differences were found between the funding of black and white students. For example, a majority of African-Americans lived in the Black Belt region of Alabama. In this area, roughly $5 was spent on each black student, whereas roughly $95 was spent on each white student.[19] As Alabama society proved the importance of white education, funds were not given to improve education for African-Americans.

African-American children were also affected by this trend of illiteracy. While illiteracy rates decreased over the years for both white and black individuals, the school attendance rate for black children ages 5-20 before 1940 was only 60%, while attendance rates for white children were always higher than that of black children.[20] Adults that were already illiterate during this period could not send their kids to school for a variety of reasons such as the lack of opportunity due to misunderstanding or need for the children to work with their parents for economic purposes.[21]


  1. Interview. Ruby Pickens Tartt of Hester Frye. February 17, 1939. Folder 93. Coll. 3709. Federal Writers' Project Papers, 1936-1940. Wilson Library. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
  2. Interview. Ruby Pickens Tartt of Hester Frye. February 17, 1939. Folder 75. Coll. 3709. Federal Writers' Project Papers, 1936-1940. Wilson Library. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
  3. Ibid., 2.
  4. Sumpter, Althea. "Geechee and Gullah Culture." New Georgia Encyclopedia. 26 July 2017. Web. 04 October 2017.
  5. Douglas, Leah. “African Americans Have Lost Untold Ares of Land Over the Last Century.” The Nation. The Nation, 06/26/17.
  6. Opala, Joseph. “The Gullah: Rice, Slavery, and the Sierra Leone-American Connection.” GLC Yale. Yale University. Accessed 10/08/17.
  7. Ibid., 4
  8. "San Augustine, Texas. Mrs. Thomas, the wife of a wholesale grocer, in her kitchen with her maid." Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C., October, 2017. http://www.loc.gov/pictures/resource/cph.3c12493/.
  9. Blumgart, Jake. "The Historical Roots of American Domestic Worker Organizing Run Deep." The Historical Roots of American Domestic Worker Organizing Run Deep. In These Times, September 21, 2015.
  10. Pierce, Yolanda. "Her Refusal to Be Recast(e): Annie Burton's Narrative of Resistance. The Southern Literary Journal 36, no. 2 (2004): 1-12.
  11. Ibid., 10
  12. Haynes, Elizabeth Ross. "Negroes in Domestic Service in the United States: Introduction." The Journal of Negro History 8, no. 4 (1923): 384-442. doi:10.2307/2713693.
  13. Ibid., 10.
  14. Ibid., 9.
  15. Margo, Robert A. " Race and Schooling in the South: A Review of the Evidence." In National Bureau of Economic Research, 6-32. University of Chicago Press, 1990. Accessed October 2, 2017.
  16. Ibid., 15.
  17. Akenson, James E., and Harvey G. Neufeldt. "Alabama's Illiteracy Compaign for Black Adults, 1915-1930: An Analysis." The Journal of Negro Education 54, no. 2 (1985): 189-95.
  18. Ibid., 15.
  19. Ibid., 17.
  20. Ibid., 15.
  21. Ibid., 15.